After studying with three masters, of whom by far the most important was Gros, he made his debut at the Paris Salon of 1822. Before withdrawing from the Salon after 1837, he established a European reputation with meticulously painted historical scenes such as The Execution of Lady Jane Grey (1833; London, National Gallery) and The Assassination of the duc de Guise. His Hemicycle for the Ecole des Beaux-Arts (1836-41), depicting seventy artists from antiquity to the time of Louis XIV, became the most famous monumental painting in France.
His later work was largely devoted to portraiture, scenes from the life of Napoleon and religious subjects. Among his foreign journeys were visits to London in 1827 and to Italy in 1834-5, 1838-9 and 1843-4. Between 1835 and 1843 he was master of a large studio inherited from Gros.
His pupils included Couture, Gérôme and Jean-François Millet (1814-75). Innumerable prints were made after his paintings and his works were probably the most extensively reproduced of any French artist of the nineteenth century